Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
“We’ve been through hell together! We spent four years, FOUR YEARS fighting that virus, and then another four fighting each other! It was chaos… But you all know what we’re up against. And I want you to know, it’s not just about power. It’s about giving us the hope to rebuild, to reclaim the world we lost!”
The virus which began as ALZ-113 spread around the world where it became known as Simian Flu and resulted in apocalyptic death tolls. Governments everywhere collapsed while the ape population in Muir Woods exploded. In the intervening years Caesar has married Cornelia (Judy Greer) and fathered a son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). Rocket has also had a son named Ash (Larramie Doc Shaw). The apes have built themselves a village out of timber up on a hill and some cliffs. They communicate through their version of American Sign Language, but Maurice can be seen teaching the children to read and write in English. Ten years have passed since the ape rebellion and the viral outbreak and it has been two years since the apes have seen any signs of humans.
The film begins with Caesar leading a hunting party in pursuit of a herd of elk. The apes are decorated with red and white paint giving them the appearance of ghosts or skeletons and they can be seen wielding wooden spears. Caesar successfully brings down an elk with a bolas and he and his son move in closer to finish the animal off. Caesar notices claw marks on a nearby tree and orders his son to stay still, but Blue Eyes is impatient and eager. When Caesar’s son moves in to dispatch the elk a large brown bear bursts out of the foliage and slashes his shoulder and chest. Caesar leaps to the defence of his son and the pair are eventually rescued by Koba (Toby Kebbell) who kills the bear after responding to Caesar’s calls for help.
Organized group hunting like this, with communication and tools, was long considered unique to humans. Other animals, including apes, do display pack hunting but it’s unclear how much planning and communication is involved. The existence of this level of hunting in non-humans is only implied by the remains of stone tools and massive kill sites in the fossil and archaeological record. Introducing the apes with this sort of skill and power makes them appear strong and dangerous. The film’s score renders the entire scene creepy and otherworldly. It’s not quite as shocking as the apes hunting and catching humans from the ‘68 and ‘01 films but the implied carnivorous or omnivorous diet of these enhanced apes stands in contrast to their typically vegetarian diet in the previous films.
The intervening decade has not been kind to human civilization. Stranded vehicles and abandoned buildings are completely overgrown with vegetation and the roads are quickly disappearing. The apes pass beneath an old 76 Gas Station on their way back from their hunting grounds. A few of the apes are riding horses which are presumably the ones taken from the mounted officers at the Golden Gate Bridge standoff. These horses are pristine though and it is unclear how the apes have managed to take care of them all this time. The horseback apes use fairly simple woven bridles but not saddles which is reminiscent of early Native American horse riders. I do not believe the similarity is accidental considering the conflict between humans and apes around which this film revolves.
It’s perhaps glossed over in the film but a system of writing is an enormous step in cultural development. Humans existed for hundreds of thousands of years before any sign of the written word can be found. In the Age of Discovery, the European explorers discovered many advanced cultures around the world who did not have a formal system of writing. Even cultures with advanced record-keeping and administration like the Inca did not necessarily develop symbols to represent sounds or ideas. For the apes to immediately be able to adopt English conceivably gives them immediate access to a historical record beyond oral tradition. There are some laws or commandments written on stone in the ape village which read “Ape Not Kill Ape”, “Apes Together Strong”, and “Knowledge is Power”. Like Battle (1973) before it, Dawn is very much about that first rule being broken and Caesar dealing with the repercussions. The ape society appears harmonious, even Koba seems genial and happy, but a darkness is lurking in his heart and Koba becomes the first ape to break this rule.
Koba seems to have taken Blue Eyes under his wing and Blue Eyes seeks Koba’s counsel more than he does Caesar’s. It’s possible that Koba has been poisoning Blue Eyes with seditious thoughts but it could simply be a result of the natural estrangement that can occur between a young man and his father. Caesar tries to comfort his son, but Blue Eyes is uninterested in heeding the fatherly advice. Perhaps contributing to the schism between father and son is Cornelia’s deteriorating health. The ape matriarch falls ill soon after giving birth to Caesar’s second son, Cornelius.
The next morning Ash and Blue Eyes are walking back from a fishing trip with their catch when they suddenly come face to face with a human, Carver (Kirk Acevedo). The two apes appear curious and concerned but Carver looks terrified. He pulls out a gun and shoots Ash in the shoulder. The gunshot awakens Caesar and summons the ape warriors to the scene as well as Carver’s companions: Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Malcolm’s partner Ellie (Keri Russell) and his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), along with two others. The humans are cowed by the arrival of the apes and awed by Caesar who orders them simply to “Go!” which they do promptly. Unwilling to take any chances, Caesar orders Koba to follow the humans out of the woods.
Human survivors of the plague have holed up inside an abandoned market across the street from the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank and beneath a partially constructed skyscraper. Makeshift fortifications surround the entrances and dot the walls. This colony was co-founded by Malcolm and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) on the promise of bringing electricity back to civilization. Their grand project has involved rerouting power lines from the colony to a hydroelectric grid in the North and bundles of wires can be seen hanging on the interiors and exteriors. The reason humans were wandering through Caesar’s woods at all was because they were scouting a small hydroelectric power generating dam. Dreyfus is pleased that Malcolm believes the dam can be made operational with a few weeks of work, but is simultaneously dismayed by and incredulous of the news about intelligent talking apes. Dreyfus swears everyone to silence regarding the apes because he fears the panic such news would cause.
Koba returns to the village with news of the human colony and counsels that the apes should attack and destroy it before the humans can attack the apes. Maurice, busy looking through a sketchbook Alexander dropped while retreating, advises that they need more information before making any moves. Koba tries to get Rocket’s support by pointing out that they injured his son, and Blue Eyes sides with Koba, but Rocket is steadfast in his support of Caesar who finally speaks up. Caesar shares many of of the same concerns as Malcolm and Dreyfus. He worries that going to war could undo everything they’ve built together. Caesar disbands the council meeting by stating he will make a decision in the morning. Koba approaches him afterwards to discuss his motivations. While Koba appreciates Caesar a great deal for freeing him from the lab, the years he spent being studied and tortured weigh on him heavily and he believes that not confronting the humans shows weakness. Caesar agrees that the apes will display strength.
Dreyfus’ plan to keep things secret until a plan can be devised is thwarted by the arrival of the ape army at the colony’s gates. Caesar proclaims that the apes do not want a war with the humans, but that they will defend themselves if provoked. He has his son deliver Alexander’s satchel and the ape army departs after Caesar tells the colony that this is their home, and the woods belong to the apes. He privately tells Malcolm “Do not come back”. There’s an interesting parallel in the relationship between Malcolm and Dreyfus and the one between Caesar and Koba.
Malcolm is wary but respectful of the apes, whereas Dreyfus calls them animals and sends men to raid an old armory at a quarantine checkpoint. He pacifies the colony by saying the apes will regret antagonizing them. It’s reminiscent of the negotiations that took place between Native populations and expanding empires. The humanity of the Natives is questioned and their rights therefore largely unrecognized. That the humans are using guns and tanks and the apes spears and horses or that what the humans want from the apes is access to their land so they can power their city only reinforces this metaphor. The apes are no strangers to incarnating the plight of various minorities and this film’s themes of trust, betrayal, and sovereignty make them every bit an allegory for Native Americans. Malcolm and Caesar wish for and hope for peace between the two communities but Koba and Dreyfus prepare for war. Many leaders throughout history and literature have been faced with this dichotomy but the film clearly paints one side as heroic and the other as villainous which weakens the natural dilemma.
Dreyfus is prepared to go to war with the apes in order to secure access to the dam but allows Malcolm to return to the forest and attempt peaceful negotiations. Returning to the woods with the same team as before, Malcolm hikes to the ape village alone. Once through the gates he is accosted by the gorilla guards and dragged before Caesar who reluctantly agrees to hear him out. Malcolm brings Caesar to the dam and explains the situation to him. The apes learn of the team in the truck and agree to let them work on the dam but confiscate their guns and destroy them. Koba is incredulous that Caesar would be so foolish and confronts Caesar to reiterate that the only things humans have ever done to Koba were violent and cruel. Caesar replies that the humans are clearly desperate and allowing them to do their work will prevent further conflict. This is a pretty good point and the film presents it as the correct decision.
A dismayed Koba further spies on the humans and discovers the weapons depot where he narrowly escapes being captured or killed by the two doofuses assigned to test fire all of the guns. Koba returns to this location at a later date and both times he chooses to disarm the men by pretending to be a silly foolish monkey. It’s possible to read deeper into this: the gullibility of people when it comes to the belief in their superiority, the necessity for some groups to behave in a certain way in order to protect themselves, and Koba’s growing manipulation of others to hide his true intentions. Koba swears the apes who accompanied him to secrecy when it comes to the existence of these weapons.
Carver has an irrational fear of and hatred for the apes. He erroneously believes the apes to have been the cause of the pandemic and tries to support his position by reminding the others of their lost loved ones. He’s presented as being an unrepentant asshole who is incapable of realizing how much of a liability he is to the success of this project. I wish that antagonistic characters like this were provided more depth but, like Koba, the reasons behind his motivations are simply too shallow. All of the humans in this movie lost family and friends to the virus and all of them have struggled to rebuild yet none of them are shown to harbor the resentment and anger that Carver does. Similarly all of the apes, except for the children, escaped captivity and lived for years in cages where they were cared for and experimented on by humans yet Koba and his followers are the only ones who demand retribution. Maurice, who once belonged to a circus, even tells Caesar that he only saw the bad side of humanity yet the orangutan forms a close friendship with Alexander and does not wish the humans any ill will. Fictional stories sometimes have a bad habit of oversimplifying motivations. In reality, all abused children do not grow up to become abusers themselves, everyone who suffered hardship does not snap; all orphans do not become Batman. The humans and apes in this film spend a great deal of time explaining and justifying their actions but they are surrounded by people successfully coping with identical issues. It’s a bit difficult to believe that they’ve gone all this time without confronting their problems.
While working on the dam the humans uncover a blockage and set explosives to clear it. The detonation startles the horses and apes who investigate the disturbance. It is unclear whether or not they bothered to warn the apes ahead of time about what they were planning. One would think that getting permission for such a thing should have been a priority. Regardless, the apes dig the humans out from the cave-in of rubble they have caused. Carver even finds himself being rescued by Rocket, the ape whose son he winged in the shoulder. Back on the surface the humans and apes finally share a moment when Caesar’s infant son escapes from his clutches and begins playfully poking and prodding between Alexander and Ellie as they treat Carver’s hurt leg. The look of sheer concern and confusion on Blue Eyes’ face as he watches his younger brother play unconcernedly in the clutches of human beings could possibly have led to a softening of his heart but the young baby finds his way to Carver’s case where he uncovers a smuggled shotgun. Carver immediately knocks the child out of the way inciting protective rage from Blue Eyes. Carver even goes so far as to draw the gun on him but is easily disarmed by Caesar who tosses the gun into the river. Caesar refuses to let the humans remain in the woods. Malcolm and Ellie follow the apes back to the village, however, where they all discover that Cornelia’s condition has worsened. Ellie and Malcolm successfully negotiate treating Cornelia’s sickness with antibiotics in exchange for more time. Caesar agrees to trust Malcolm to Blue Eyes’ surprise and disapproval.
Koba cannot believe that Caesar has let the humans continue their work and accuses him of being weak and favoring the humans and of putting their safety ahead of the safety of his own children. This blows Caesar’s fuse and he leaps at Koba. The two have a violent struggle that ends in Caesar’s absolute victory. He restrains himself from killing Koba at the last minute and repeats the ape maxim “Ape Not Kill Ape”. Koba begs forgiveness but it is less sincere than before. I’m not sure why this set Caesar off so much. Koba’s exact words here are “Humans attack your sons. You let them stay! Put apes in danger! Caesar loves humans more than apes. More than your sons!” Caesar then looks over Koba’s shoulder at his son Blue Eyes who looks back at his father and Caesar loses it to Koba’s provocations. Is this meant to be a display of the more animalistic nature of ape society where Caesar demands absolute obedience from his followers and simply beats Koba and others into obedience and subservience? That seems unlike the Caesar we’ve seen so far. Is the stress of the situation just getting to him? Is he afraid of looking weak in front of his son or is Caesar somehow cognizant of Koba’s role in the growing rift between himself and Blue Eyes? It’s not a question the film takes the time to answer, unlike the majority of the film’s characters who are granted a great deal of expository dialogue to discuss their motivations.
With the issue now settled the humans successfully complete their work and restore power to the region. They make their way to the gas station, its neon lights fully restored and gleaming in the dusk, where Alexander locates and plays “The Weight” by The Band on the convenience store’s sound system. A mixture of relief and joy plays on all of their faces as the music comes out of the speakers. Carver, banished to the truck for the incident with the shotgun, overhears the music while lighting up another cigarette and is also audibly relieved. A weight has been lifted from all their shoulders. Koba, rushing back from having killed the morons at the gun range and stolen their weapon, chooses this moment to murder Carver.
Malcolm is cautiously optimistic that their plan has worked and power has been restored to the colony. Caesar brings them back to the ape village where, standing on top of the height, they can see the lights glowing across the bay. Koba warns Blue Eyes that Caesar has been blinded by his love for the humans and that his life is in danger. Blue Eyes is astounded when Cornelia appears, the baby in her arms, apparently fully recovered. Once again it seems like perhaps he will overcome Koba’s noxious influence since there can be no stronger proof of the human’s good intentions than Cornelia being successfully cured of her illness. Unfortunately, Koba takes this opportunity to sneak onto a bough below the cliff where he shoots Caesar, sending him falling to his death.
One of the things that I felt was missing from Rise was a scene where the apes use fire. Fire is such a vital emblem of humanity appearing throughout cinema in works like The Jungle Book and Quest for Fire and it was used in Conquest (1972) to great effect. In mythology, fire is often of divine or celestial origin and has to be stolen for, taken by, or bequeathed to humans. The apes seizing control of fire would be a very primal symbol of their altered enhanced status. In the ape village, we see a few torches and fire pits, and the village itself is ultimately destroyed in a conflagration the night of Caesar’s shooting when Koba throws Carver’s lighter onto the timber.
After Blue Eyes discovers the gun and Carver’s baseball cap, he and Koba accuse the humans of assassinating Caesar and the ape village erupts into a frenzy as it begins to burn down. Maurice, ever aware of the direction the wind is blowing, warns the humans to run. Earlier he stood between Koba and Alexander when the former attacked the latter and here he once again chooses to protect the humans. Malcolm and the others are able to take cover beneath an old log while the ape army swarms downhill around them on their way towards the city.
Back at the colony the humans are celebrating their renewed access to electricity. Dreyfus, alone in his room, hears his tablet ping back to life and scrolls through his photo album where he sees images from his past. Group pictures from his days in the military and several family photos bring tears to his eyes and Dreyfus cries uncontrollably. The other humans are partying together, united in their feelings of success and relief. Carver, isolated against his will, was dragged away and murdered. Dreyfus, apparently isolated by choice, suffers in silence. It’s possible that where the others felt a weight lifted from their shoulders since power was restored, rather than experiencing relief like others might have, it appears to have broken the dam inside Dreyfus that suppressed his emotions while he led the colony. This moment is interrupted by news that the weapons depot has been overrun and raided by the apes.
The scene of the ape attack is told largely from Blue Eyes’ perspective as he looks around him horrified at the violence being wrought. Caesar’s most powerful critique of Koba’s warmongering was “How many apes will die?” and watching it happen is sobering for Blue Eyes. Dreyfus does his best to lead the humans but they are quickly overrun by the sheer number of apes. A small tank momentarily pins the apes down but it is quickly commandeered by Koba. This action set piece is shot from a camera mounted on the turret as it spins round and round providing a 360-degree view of the devastation. The apes breach the doors and swarm through the colony as the humans flee in terror. A man operating a radio briefly succeeds in sending out a call for help before being forced to escape.
Malcolm and the others in the woods come across a barely alive Caesar who tells them Koba was responsible for shooting him as well as his desire to bring this war to an end as soon possible. They bring him to the truck and drive down to the city where Caesar directs them to the Rodman household where they come across old photographs and home videos of Caesar and Will. Caesar’s condition is severe and Malcolm is forced to sneak into the colony in search of medical supplies. While making his way out of Ellie’s room with the necessary supplies he runs into Blue Eyes who decides to spare Malcolm. Malcolm informs Blue Eyes that his father is still alive and brings him back to the Rodman house.
Under Koba’s reign of terror the humans were rounded up and locked inside holding cells originally constructed for the Simian Flu quarantine. His ire was not limited to humans, however; several apes still loyal to Caesar including Maurice, Rocket, and the gorilla Luca (Scott Lang) have been locked up under guard inside of an old bus. Maurice warns Blue Eyes to be careful. While rounding up humans Koba ordered Ash to murder a man and a woman they had captured. When Ash refused, signing that Caesar wouldn’t want this, Koba threw Ash off a balcony inside City Hall, killing him. Blue Eyes is thoroughly disillusioned by the time he reunites with his father in the Rodmans’ old living room.
Blue Eyes apologizes profusely to Caesar who only blames himself for failing to recognize how far Koba would go and for trusting him in the first place. Blue Eyes, who spends most of this movie wide-eyed, is again surprised to see his father’s childhood home and to learn that he was raised by humans and to learn the truth that Koba shot his father. Blue Eyes makes his way back to the ape-controlled colony where he brings the message of resistance to Maurice and the others on the bus. The members of Caesar’s resistance escape from the bus by tipping it over, crushing their guards beneath it. Blue Eyes and the others free the caged humans who run away.
Caesar recovers from his surgery and believes that the only way to seize power from Koba is to defeat him because, according to Caesar, apes will always seek the strongest branch. Despite what Blue Eyes believes, the mere shock of Caesar’s survival and the knowledge of Koba’s betrayal will not be enough to sway the apes. Caesar does his best to rest and heal and has a brief heart-to-heart with Malcolm where he calls him a good man, comparing him to Will. Caesar’s lieutenants appear outside the famous attic window and Malcolm plans to sneak them into the colony via the subway tunnels.
As they approach the colony the group is met with gunfire and a voice demanding to know whether they are human. Malcolm points the way for the apes to escape while calling out to the voice. The voice leads him to Dreyfus and some others who have been planting explosive charges at the base of the unfinished skyscraper. They plan to bring the tower crashing down on top of the apes to kill them. Malcolm believes they need to give Caesar a chance instead. Malcolm bides his time, as he feigns helping the saboteurs, but he eventually grabs a weapon and holds the group at gunpoint.
Caesar and Koba have a final confrontation atop the unfinished high-rise where Caesar’s retort to being called weak is “Koba weaker”. The two jump, swing, and kick one another in spectacular ways considering Caesar’s injuries. An added dose of chaos occurs when Dreyfus kills himself by setting off the bombs in order to “save humanity”. The tower begins to collapse around them as Koba and Caesar continue to duel. Koba again shows his disregard for other apes by relieving one of his followers, pinned by rubble, of his gun instead of rescuing him. Koba eventually finds himself dangling above a chasm barely holding on. He reminds Caesar of their code “Ape Not Kill Ape” to which Caesar replies, “You are not ape” and drops Koba to his doom.
I appreciate the emotion of the scene, and the fall itself is perhaps meant to mimic Jacobs’ death from the previous film, but the final line doesn’t exactly make a whole lot of sense. Caesar could be suggesting, to Koba’s disgust, that he’s more human than ape. However, in canon Caesar is the first ape to implicitly understand that not all humans are evil. Earlier, Caesar had a discussion with Maurice about the darkness inside of Koba and having to reevaluate his belief that apes are better than humans. Is Caesar suggesting that Koba is a monster who forfeits his ape-hood by killing and harming others? That’s a pretty dark path for Caesar to walk down, one which is explored in the sequel.
Koba, believing he had consolidated his power over the colony, had summoned the women and children from the woods and their arrival coincides with Caesar’s victory and the sunrise. Caesar receives supplication from all the apes at the base of the tower as he walks through the throng with his family. Malcolm believes that peace is now possible but Caesar is adamant that war is now inevitable. Caesar believes that humans will never forgive what has happened and that the apes will be forced to defend themselves and end the war if they wish to survive.
Dawn is designed as a tragedy but fails to make its tragic ends inevitable, instead relying on odd decisions by characters to justify its turning points. There’s an appropriate tension in the air in Caesar’s scenes with Malcolm. Dreyfus’ struggle to keep things together is evident in every note of Oldman’s performance. Koba’s mutinous murder and Dreyfus’ desperate suicide feel like choices at odds with the characters we’ve come to know. Like Apes films before and after it, Dawn also has plenty of facile biblical imagery to punch it up with potent themes. The song “The Weight” is infamous for its purported biblical references. PotA works best in two specific ways. The first is when the apes rule the world and humans are an oppressed minority. That scenario confronts us with the way we choose to treat those we deem less important. Animals, minorities, foreigners. The other Apes scenario, one at which the reboots excel, is treating the apes as a metaphor for the oppressed.
In Rise, Caesar embodied the Black experience in America. A problematic choice considering the gross history of scientific racism but a powerful metaphor nevertheless as Caesar is rescued from slavery, raised as a second-class citizen, and is eventually thrown into prison where he organizes his fellows and successfully leads an uprising. It’s a righteous journey and one that is impossible not to sympathize with. In Dawn, the apes almost seem to be doing better than the surviving humans. It’s a shocking reversal to have a film where the humans are begging the apes for help. Of course, despite their intelligence and power, the ape nation is unrecognized by the humans leaders who continue to treat them like animals publicly. Just another obstacle to be overcome. Even Malcolm, the human most empathetic to the apes, repeatedly ignores Caesar’s wishes in order to fulfill his own agenda. This history of dehumanization, of disagreements over land use, and betrayal and violence comes right out of American frontier mythology.
The land of the apes, their home, is encroached upon by humans who want to use their natural resources to fuel their civilization. When the apes push back the human response is to escalate the conflict. That is the real tragedy. One we’ve seen repeated throughout history. Koba is just a repeat of Aldo. His potency disappears as soon as he succeeds. By forcing the apes into both roles in a single film, tyrannical overlords and oppressed minorities, the movie collapses. Luckily, the sequel knows far more what it’s about and tightens its focus on Caesar’s arc
To read the other chapters in our limited series;